Due to circumstances outside of my control, I was away from the internet and most games this weekend (other than my trusty old DS Lite). While I was sitting in an airport terminal, waiting for our flight to board, a copy of the New York Times – Dead Tree Edition – happened its way across my lap. On the front page of the Business section, I saw an article about Slim Jim’s marketing strategy. It was presented without irony.
I implore you to read the entire thing, since it’s all painful. There’s an associated commercial on YouTube, but I’d rather not link it myself since it’s not so popular so far and I don’t really want to give Slim Jim the hits and satisfaction. But please do read the article.
Okay. I know. There’s nothing new there. And yet there’s so much to unpack here. It’s a horrible, tangled web of cultural assumptions about manhood, about food, and of course about video games.
Our culture has some weirdly gendered notions about food. Just for starters: some foods are for women and some are for men. Chocolate, diet soda = coded female; beef, beer = coded male. It’s okay for women to want “man foods,” like a drippy Carl’s Jr. burger, as long as they are attractive women. Of course a fat woman eating manly food (or any food, or doing anything) is disgusting. Cosmetics are marketed to women as an alternative to fatty food (described as “whipped, delicious”). If marketers decide to sell diet soda to men for a change, they have to emphasize that women are not allowed to drink that particular diet soda, lest men who drink it feel “girly” and devalued.
I actually eat a lot of dried meat, though not Slim Jim. I’m anemic, like lots of women, and, I’m on a low-carb diet, like lots of women. Those two factors make beef jerky a reasonable grab-and-go snack choice for me, giving me nutrients I need without crap I don’t. But beef jerky is not marketed to me. It is “man food.”
Well, wait… it’s not man food. It’s boy food, because, as a man gets older, his “snacking regimen diversifies.” Now it seems to me that one good way to sell more jerky would be to open up the jerky market. Married men, and even women, might enjoy jerky: the portability, the flavor, the health benefits (!). But this is why I’m obviously not a marketer. The trick isn’t to say it’s okay for men and women to enjoy jerky. The trick is to explain to men why they should remain boys for longer so they can eat more jerky.
Enter video games! “That bastion of boyhood.” Video games are certainly not for women in the world of Slim Jim (or even in this section of the Times). But, like Slim Jim, they are not even for men, who have dirty, filthy grown-up lives and responsbilities! And video games are about “avoiding the grown up thing.” Dead Space 3: ’cause it’s for kids! I mean, obviously not kids – it’s M-rated and we don’t want to actually market to kids – let me backpedal that – it’s for “bros”! They need their “brolectrolytes”! And EA is more than okay with this! “It’s good for the game and good for the brand,” says author David Vinjamuri. Someone who disagreed could apparently not be found by the Times before print deadline.
I mean, I disagree, obviously. That put me in my angry place. But I’m just a consumer.
So, like I said, this is old hat. This is the same mentality that causes booth babe galleries, the Spike TV game awards coverage, and other circular-logic poison that keeps shoving video games into the cultural ghetto. And I am so exhausted by it, and this article is a perfect little example of how this treatment of the medium can be totally taken for granted as part of the video game culture conversation.
I don’t expect anything from Slim Jim. Slim Jim doesn’t want my business. But EA – and the New York Times – should try to do better.
Email the author of this post at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nothing goes better with Dead Space’s horrific death scenes than overpriced MEATSTICKS.
As for another point you made, I’d love to see commercials directed towards couples that aren’t for lube, condoms, or wedding videography.
It’s marketing at it’s simplest; target your broadest market share. Boy’s and men in their twenties are, by far, their largest market. Teaming up with video games broadens the market further, like me (35/married/3 kids) who plays video games but doesn’t really eat Slim Jims anymore, but I would if I got video game swag from it, is simply smart on their part.
I agree that it is an obvious attempt to make video games more infantile which is in direct opposition to the intent of this site to promote games as an artform. An yes, I think they are excluding an untapped market of women and couples like BeamSplash stated above, but it all comes down to money with advertising. It is easier and more profitable for them to cater to the 80% of their market hoping to increase sales by 10% than to try to increase the 20% of their market by 200% or even 100%.
@heddhunter: Sure. It’s obvious and totally unsurprising that they’d do this. But it’s still annoying. And it’s a great reminder that: this is how games look to the “outside.” It’s not questioned.
I don’t think that it is really going to make any difference. There are a few categories that people fall into: People who see video games as childish, people who are indifferent, gamers who don’t care what the public thinks, and gamers who, like yourself, try earnestly to change the perception of what the public thinks. Games is a multi-billion dollar industry that is only growing larger and stronger every year. Why? Because every year a new crop of gamers enters the arena while the older gamers, albeit play less, still do play and at minimum see games as a serious entertainment medium, so that populous continues to grow. The list of people who sees games as childish is dwindling every year and will eventually be insignificant long-term. Games will become second nature to people, as much as watching your favorite tv show which isn’t considered childish to the aforementioned group. Gamers are now at the age of being in control of businesses, politics, and culture definers, so I expect to see a change in perception coming soon. Gamers who don’t care will always be the largest group and thus the group advertisers cater to. So, while I feel your pain, just know that video games aren’t going anywhere and will only grow as an industry as well as culturally. My advise, grin and bear it. It will all be over soon. 🙂
I imagine sports fans that don’t treat beer and women as interchangeable feel the same way. Advertising itself is generally aimed at the worst in us or of us. I unfortunately have to assume someone bought Dragon Age: Origins after seeing the “This is the New Shit” commercial, for example.
AJ, you win the internet. That was fantastic.
I worked in advertising for ten years, and I know a lot about it. The strange juxtaposition of hard science and imbecility that is true advertising is entirely unique in the world. Cognitive theory, rational/emotional transference mechanisms, behavioral science and social demography are major parts of the medium of advertising, and to those who’ve never been in that business, it can be hard to visualize what actually goes on in an ad agency. It’s never been accurately presented in fiction (even Mad Men, while coming closest, isn’t a full picture), and understanding it from without would be as difficult as me – who has never worked in nursing – truly understanding the nursing industry.
At my agency, and I assume at all of them, we had a common joke: “advertising would be the greatest job in the world if it weren’t for the clients.” For some reason in all creative industries, everyone feels like they have the right to an opinion, which is pretty funny when you consider how most nurses would react if I advised them on how I think they should do their jobs.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying advertisers are the misunderstood heroes of great media, brought low by things beyond their control. Advertising itself is more to blame than any client for the cultural compartmentalization that AJ decries above. The irony is that most products, in catering to their “market,” are closing themselves off from other markets – whole blue oceans of opportunity. Slim Jim advertising cuts off its nose to spite its face by saying “Slim Jims are FOR [THIS GROUP],” because the implication is of course that they’re not for other groups. It’s bad economic sense.
The perceptual problem with video games is slowly dying, as Heddhunter notes. Soon everyone will be a gamer to some degree or another. Sites like this one, and many who work in the industry, want “soon” to come sooner, which is why we fight the good fight every day instead of just waiting patiently. Either approach will reach the same goal; the hope is that one will reach it faster.
Advertising like this is depressing because it’s so simplistic. Fewer people than ever before would agree that video games are only for boys, or only for kids, or whatever. I don’t worry that such ad campaigns will set the perceptual clock back; that after seeing a Slim Jim ad someone will mentally re-file video games under the “Juvenile” section of their mind. What bothers me about it isn’t that I perceive it as damaging, but as so small-minded. It’s easier to present this known-to-be-false stereotype than it is to be correct and even. It says something about what’s wrong with people, not what’s wrong with Slim Jims or games or advertising.
Simple and/or untrue win out despite the fact that another message, one that would be just as easy to produce and just as effective (possibly moreso), would bear at least the honor of probity.
I haven’t had a Slim Jim in ages. I remember them as tongue-coatingly greasy, where really good jerky is tender and yummy but doesn’t make your mouth feel as though it’s lined in wax.
This ad is not going to convince me to try a Slim Jim again, but then… I’m not their market.
@BeamSplashX: You’re correct about sports fans. Which bodes ill for the idea that this problem will go away as gaming becomes more mainstream; sports is as mainstream as it comes, at least for men, and culturally they’re still in Bro Hell.
One thing I’ve noticed in my 30 plus years of working in a field where ad people are who WE call clients, is that the thinking is getting more and more specific. The targeting ever more narrow. Once a product smiled at you from high above and smiled upon you all equally. Now the clouds part and the stuff pours down over JUST YOU like some tiny cloudburst of gooey goodness rewarding you for being you.
I think I’d prefer it if the media just ignored video games. It would probably be an improvement.
Fact: My wife really likes beef jerky.
Fact #2: That headline is the best EVER.
Thinking about this a bit more, I guess the important issue for the future may not be what the ads look like but what the culture winds up like. Despite the ridiculous over-the-top sexist ads for Burger King, Carl’s Jr, etc., I’m guessing that a woman can walk into one of those joints without being much more likely to be sexually harassed than she is any other public location. (But I could be wrong!) That’s not true for women gaming, and it’s not true for women at major league sports either. (The one baseball blog I regularly comment at is I think 100% male, and though many of the posters are lovely people there are a lot of brobags.)
If I had to guess, as gaming goes more mainstream it’ll be more like sports than burgers.
I’m with Steerpike in that it seems economically dumb to be so specific — of course, I’m no market/advertising analyst! At the Eurogamer Expo this year there seemed to be more booth babes around but also more parents and their kids, which I was quite uncomfortable about (the mixture of the two that is, not the kids, though kids do make me uneasy anyway). After the expo I discovered that next year they’re clamping down on booth babes (to what extent I don’t know) but I believe the reason is that they simply want to welcome as many different types of people as possible, keep the whole thing open, as opposed to closing it down to the ‘usual’ crowd. This is obviously a good thing and I hope it continues to diversify over the coming years.
‘Brolectrolytes’ made me puke a little in my mouth though.
@steerpike: Thanks, glad you enjoyed! It’s interesting to have my own suspicions confirmed – I have had a very small brush with advertising buys now in my current line of work, and it’s so easy to get caught in a loop. “This product only appeals to X people, so only X people will see the ads…” makes sense, but when you run out of X people, what then?
and yeah, Slim Jims are actually kinda gross anyway.
@matt w: That sports story made me feel a little sick.
AJ — sorry. Should probably have put a “This is going to be worse than you think it is” warning on that.
This is one of the reasons I don’t miss watching broadcast television in the slightest.
I think I preferred the 90s ads where the punishment for not eating Slim Jims was being beaten by Hulk Hogan… for some reason.
Since no one can relate to that, you’re not blocking off any markets! Obviously.
great article, and a good dialogue to have.
i think advertising used to be tasked with convincing someone of something. “ours is better than theirs” or “this is the best choice — here’s why”. but somewhere along the line, the world became small enough, and accessible enough that some marketer said, “eff it, convincing people is hard. there are plenty of people out there who would by this, we need to tell them they need this, or better yet — that this defines them” and would enough exposure, that works.
then all of a sudden the repercussion is that if it defines THEM, then it doesn’t define ME. then marketing becomes a careful balancing act of persuading some without dissuading others.
and in my opinion, where we find ourselves now is a wasteland of people not caring what garbage is being thrown around because it’s okay to say “well, that’s not aimed at me” there is no room for the individual with complicated and heartfelt beliefs. either what they’re telling you is for you, or you’re on the outside.
this marketing pervades everything, from politics to food, and leisure to religion. in my opinion, no one’s life is enriched with this. and buying in just makes us easier to quantify.
Good points downtreader, and welcome to Tap. I’ll be honest, I don’t come into regular contact with the sorts of people these advertising campaigns are aimed at but based on what I saw at this year’s Eurogamer Expo, which featured Mountain Dew booths, the latest CoD and Halo multiplayer pods, booth babes, free bags of shitty merch, and I think last year they were giving away free Doritos, there’s a mass of individuals that are more than happy to keep moving with and perpetuating this… ‘feature’ list of the stereotype. I saw a lot of people at the expo who didn’t fit the bill of course, which was great, but they did feel like a minority. For me I’d be happy to see a lot of those things disappear or take a step back just to, I don’t know, give the medium some breathing room for other folks on the outside. The medium is so varied, colourful and rich and I don’t think the current store front really reflects that at the best of times. I think that’s why ‘gamer shame’ exists because we have some idea of how the medium is perceived by those who just witness (unrepresentative) snatches of it. I’m optimistic that smartphone and independent gaming — as well as certain AAA titles — will breach this wall in various ways over time, paving the way for more of these individuals with ‘complicated and heartfelt beliefs’.